Before you read this, you may want to watch my talk for researchEd home where I outline the major principles of Dual Coding Theory and its expression in the Multimedia Effect. In due course I will publish some FAQs that I received. 

Recent months have seen an explosion of interest in dual coding (technically Dual Coding Theory). Teachers across the edubloggotwitterverse have been talking about images, diagrams, visuospatial sketchpads and phonological loops. Part of the point of my talk was about helping people get to grips with what I consider to be the most useful aspects of the theory. Part of the talk was also about heading off lethal mutations: about trying to stop good ideas turned weird, useless or actively harmful. Sadly, I fear that a lot of what has been produced under the title “dual coding” flirts with the line between sensible, evidence based practice and…well…all the other stuff.

What’s the deal with those infernal icons? 

Before I get too polemical, I want to emphasise again that there are different strands in the tradition of interpreting and applying Dual Coding Theory. It is a broad church, and a number of practices can fit within it.

Having said that, I do not understand at all the current craze for just chucking an icon on everything. I don’t know what the point is – what is trying to be achieved? If I have a section of text about a wind turbine and put an icon of a wind turbine next to it, what is the point? Does it help them understand the text? Nope. Does it help them remember the text? I don’t know – maybe a bit, but you don’t want their memory to be tied to that icon. You want them to remember it in an exam – where they don’t have the icon. I’ve even seen a worksheet (which got tons of likes on Twitter) which had an icon accompanying some text (which described a complex process), and then on another page a “retrieval practice” task where the students had to replicate the icon. Why? Who blooming cares if they can draw an icon or remember the image you used? You want them to know and understand the process, not to be able to copy out the slick icon you found on the internet.

I saw a worksheet where types of questions were “iconed” – so where a quote was needed, there was an icon of a quotation mark. Great, this might be an external support in the short term, but ideally you should want your students to know that it needs a quote without that icon because they don’t get that icon in the exam (or in real life). So was it worth putting the icon in? Don’t normal teachers just say “remember to add a quote!” or embed it in the question?

The same applies to (and these are all examples I have seen):

  1. Putting a magnifying glass next to a paragraph about chapter 2 from Jekyll and Hyde (when they are searching for Mr Hyde)
  2. Putting a picture of musical instruments next to a piece of text about musical instruments
  3. Putting an icon of the heart and lungs next to a section of text about aerobic training (this could actually lead to misconceptions)
  4. Putting “CO2” in a footprint outline and underneath writing “carbon footprint”
  5. An icon of a key next to some text saying “make sure to include key words in your answer”
  6. An icon of a dog next to something about “animal behaviour”
  7. An icon of a wave next to a long paragraph about…waves.
  8. A picture of a baby on a timeline next to some text about the baby being born
  9. Generally impenetrable icons

There are of course good examples. In a sheet about circle theorems, it’s probably a sensible idea to use images to show things like arcs, tangents and the like. Using different icons showing different exercises in a sheet with examples of exercise is probably a good idea. What these have in common is that they use jargon – if your students can’t remember what a tangent is, or need to refer back to something, that will help. But most of the examples I’ve seen aren’t like this (as illustrated above) and even when you are using “good” examples it’s imperative to fade their use over time so the memory does not become cued to that image (in fact it’s better to use multiple images showing the same thing but in a different artistic style or from an angle or whatever).

In short, if you want to use them fine, but don’t confuse aesthetics with thinking. Some principles of aesthetics support cognition, but many don’t. And making something look pretty with icons is fast becoming the “multicoloured dialogical marking” of the 2020’s: cool pictures to put online that show your creative flair yada yada, but not much bang for your buck in terms of learning.

I think this might annoy some people, and truth be told there probably are some good examples of icon usage. But I’ve seen a lot of bad ones. Ironically, I’ve seen ones which actually work against the flow of learning, making posters and information sheets look chaotic, crowded and indecipherable. So before using icons, or looking at someone else’s work that has icons on it, ask yourself:

  1. What is the point of using an icon here?
    1. Will it boost memory/retention?
    2. Will it take something complicated and make it easier to understand?
  2. What does an icon actually add here, that plain text wouldn’t?
  3. Am I trying to do this because it seems like the cool thing to do, or will it actually help?
  4. Am I spending longer finding icons and making sure the whole page fits together than it’s worth?

If you’ve got good answers to the above – great; go for it. Honestly. But if you don’t, then consider what else you could be doing with your time. I reckon most icon stuff for school materials is not a great use of time compared with old favourites like:

  1. Improving your explanation of something
  2. Reading a subject-specific blog
  3. Reading a chapter from Teach Like a Champion
  4. Writing drill questions

And the like. End of polemic.

Any questions?

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